I’ve been a Chairman, CEO, and C-suite Director in large businesses, start-ups and membership-based organisations, in the UK, Europe and globally. Now as CEO of RISE I am both preoccupied on how I lead culture in our consulting community and at the same time supporting our clients with the same challenge. I’ve been reflecting on these experiences and the range of missteps or habitual mistakes that I’ve made and I observe to varying degrees with our clients.
1. Seeing Culture as a project
Culture is not a project. It is the manifestation of how the people in an organisation are working and doing things together. It is alive and constantly evolving. Giving it a surge of attention and then having it drop off the leadership group agenda shows the rest of the organisation that culture is just an occasional leadership hobby.To lead and succeed through culture, it needs to be an everyday priority
2. Not appreciating the importance of culture to your relevance
Culture shapes most of the truly important aspects of your business:
- How customers experience your product or service
- How people in the business experience each other
- How the organisation is able to learn from experience and improve
Too often there is a lack of clarity in the leadership group on why culture is so important and what is it's relevance.
Understanding how culture is core to your competitive advantage
3. Not recognising that culture is continually changing
Culture is what people experience within an organisation, and it is continually shifting. While this change is ongoing and formed by the day to day conversations and actions, there are also periods of more intense change and cultural shifts, such as a significant turnover in the C-suite of a business, acquisition or expansion into a new market segment. During periods the intense pressures and insecurities test the resilience of our culture and reshape it. To counter this we must give more attention to culture and nudge it in what seems the more relevant direction. Of course, in very large bureaucracies the culture can often feel beyond the capacity of the leadership group to influence and learned helplessness can pervade the leadership group.
Recognise that in leading culture you can never be in control, but you can influence.
4. Thinking it’s about them, and not about you
People quickly smell hypocrisy when they see behaviours and actions in the leadership group that are contrary to how the leaders talk about how the culture should be. If this is the case, then thinking you are going to see any change in culture is misguided. Culture shift must start with the leadership embodying and taking responsibility for their own behaviours; espousing and modelling what they wish to be and see in others. This can only start with conversations within the leadership group about how the culture currently is in order to think through ways in which they might be able to experiment with different ways of doing things that might be more relevant for the business and its people.
Walk the talk and hold yourself to high standards in order to lead by example.
5. Believing communication of a set of behaviours and values will do the job
Supporting a shift in peoples habits and practices cannot be achieved by aspirational posters, rallying emails or branded coffee mugs etc. Having a shared understanding of the current culture, the patterns of behaviours, inter-group dynamics and changing conditions is essential to know how and why you want to nudge them. Leadership groups often go away for a couple of days, discuss how they think the culture should be and then present this back to the rest of the organisation. There is a flawed assumption here, that nicely packaged words and a couple of one-off conversations will actually make change happen. It will not. Culture is evolving, and any shift in culture has to be talked about, reflected upon and internalised. The leadership group needs to ensure enough ‘space’ is given for these types of discussions on an ongoing basis.
Create the time and learning processes to keep understanding the evolving culture
6. Thinking you can mandate and control culture
An organisation doesn’t have a culture, it is a culture - it is not imposed from the outside, but exposed from within. Going away for a few days and defining an ideal culture doesn’t actually help people to understand how they are currently experiencing the culture today and how they are contributing to that. The leadership group might be able to nudge culture to be more relevant through effective role-modelling, yet they cannot control it; they are just one ‘actor’; everybody is a part of a living and constantly changing culture.
Be humble and recognise your best contribution is role modelling and showing frequent appreciation for the contributions of others
7. Not continually sensing culture shifts
Effective leaders have a well-developed radar for sensing the nuances of culture within their organisation. This means their radar is attuned to notice productive and also destructive behaviours, practices and actions. Yet, most leaders don’t pay close enough attention to these insights or their radar is not well tuned and flickers in and out of focus.
Continually sense and pay attention to the patterns of the current culture
8. Not recognising and showcasing exemplary behaviours and practices
If you notice examples of ‘good practice’ it is important to highlight them and share the story across the organisation. This shows appreciation and also encourages others to notice, acknowledge and take responsibility for their own behaviours. Too often excellent localised actions, whilst they may be appreciated, don’t get shared widely enough.
Go global with good stories
9. Not knowing what to do about unproductive behaviours and practices
When you notice less useful behaviours or practices, it is important to explore the underlying reasons for this and support the people involved to catch their reactions and understand the other choices that were available to them. Create an opportunity for learning not just an opportunity for judgement and rebuke.
Learn from poor examples of behaviour or practice and stay local with these stories.
10. Not tracking culture
Once you know why a shift in culture is required, it becomes critical to pay attention to these factors over time to determine whether progress is being made. Too often there is a lack of ongoing check-in around how culture is showing up across the organisation or its impact; which renders the leadership efforts to nudge culture pointless if progress cannot be gauged.
Constantly pay attention to culture is essential to progress.
So in summary, a way to more effectively lead culture in your organisation would be to:
- To lead and succeed through culture, it needs to be an everyday priority
- Understand that culture is often core to your competitive advantage
- Recognise that in leading culture you can never be in control
- Walk the talk and hold yourself to high standards in order to lead by example.
- Create the time and learning processes to keep understanding the evolving culture
- Be humble and recognise your best contribution is role modelling and appreciating the contributions of others
- Sense and pay attention to the patterns of the current culture
- Go global with good stories
- Learn from poor examples of behaviour or practice and stay local with these stories
- Constantly pay attention to culture is essential to progress